Legal Aid announces significant expansion

Posted on June 8, 2015 in Inclusion Delivery System – News/Queen’s Park – Very low-income residents will have access to a range of new services to tackle a significant “crisis” in access to justice that has been building for decades.
Jun 08 2015.   By: Rachel Mendleson, News reporter

Legal Aid Ontario is embarking on the most significant and rapid expansion of services for low-income residents in a quarter century.

The multi-year plan being announced Monday aims to address the growing needs of a range of vulnerable groups that are over-represented in the courts, including members of First Nations, victims of domestic violence and people suffering from mental illness.

The array of new services includes everything from coverage for first-time offenders in criminal cases to complex matters in family courts, where more than 50 per cent of litigants do not have lawyers.

“A lot of people who are now unrepresented in very complicated, serious, important legal proceedings will have lawyers in the months and years ahead, so they don’t have to fight these issues on their own,” said Nye Thomas, director general of policy and strategy research for Legal Aid Ontario.

Access to the new services will be limited to the very poorest residents: Despite a recent increase by the province of the income threshold to qualify for legal aid — the first since 1991 — the ceiling remains below the poverty line.  However, Thomas said the expansion is still a major step in the effort to tackle “the very significant access-to-justice crisis” that has been building for decades.

Family lawyer Christina Ninham, who works on the Oneida Nation of the Thames, a reserve near London, said the expansion will make a big difference for her clients.  She is particularly supportive of coverage for third-party caregivers in child protection proceedings, which will provide legal assistance to relatives seeking to put forth a plan of care for a child who might otherwise become a Crown ward.  “Specifically in the First Nations community, placements with extended family are really significant,” Ninham said.

There is also new funding for people making substitute decisions for family members in end-of-life cases — a complex and fraught corner of the law where legal representation can help level the playing field against hospitals and other institutions, says Toronto lawyer Mark Handelman.

St. Catharines resident Diana Saranchuk, 45, says having a lawyer “made all the difference in the world” in her recent fight against a hospital over the care of her aging aunt.  “When you are trying to help somebody you love, whose life depends on it, you want to make sure you have someone who understands the system,” said Saranchuk, who hired Handelman with financial help from a special interest group opposed to euthanasia.

While she applauds the legal aid expansion, she says the ceiling for eligibility is too low. As a stay-at-home mother of four, she struggles to make ends meet with what her husband earns as an educational assistant. However, his salary exceeds the maximum for a family of five or more, which is $30,016 for full assistance and $38,157 for partial assistance.

Monday’s announcement is the latest in a series of legal aid expansions that have followed a commitment by the province last year to inject more than $150 million over four years to raise the income eligibility threshold and increase the range of legal services that qualify for assistance.

The new services available to financially eligible adults were chosen in consultation with lawyers, judges and community groups, to provide early intervention and prevent legal matters from escalating.
By 2018, legal aid estimates the new services and series bumps in the financial eligibility threshold slated to be rolled out over the next few years will grow the total number of cases that receive assistance by roughly one-third.

Changes to Legal Aid Ontario

New qualifying threshold for family of four:
For full support, annual gross family income under $27,042.
For partial support, under $33,843.
In domestic violence cases, under $41,573.

When the new money is coming:

Ontario has committed $154 million in additional funding over four years. (Fiscal year is April 1 to March 31.)

2014-15: $6.42 million (started Nov. 1, halfway through fiscal year)
2015-16: $31.54 million
2016-17: $48.81 million
2017-18: $66.98 million
Legal Aid’s total revenue for the 2013-2014 fiscal year was $388 million.

How legal aid is expanding

Ontario cases given legal aid assistance in 2013-14: 83,658
New cases expected to get assistance based on expansion:
2014-15 (November to March): 965
2015-16 (full fiscal year): 14,500
2016-17 (full fiscal year): 20,000
2017-18 (full fiscal year): 28,000
Note: Expansion in every year except 2014-15 includes new cases granted assistance based on both factors: a new higher eligibility threshold and new services.

Source: Legal Aid Ontario

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